Entertainment » Theatre

The Niceties

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Sep 17, 2018
Jordan Boatman and Lisa Banes in Huntington Theatre Company's production of 'The Niceties,' continuing through Oct. 6
Jordan Boatman and Lisa Banes in Huntington Theatre Company's production of 'The Niceties,' continuing through Oct. 6  (Source:T. Charles Erickson)

There's plenty about the Eleanor Burgess play "The Niceties" that will bring to mind David Mamet's "Oleanna." Both plays are two-handers in which slightly (or not so slightly) out of touch university professors run afoul of angry, anxious, volatile young women who respond... literally... with a vengeance. Both plays dance on the ticklish terrain of political correctness, and both leave room for sympathy and contempt alike for each of the characters (though Mamet's play seems more intent on making a villain out of the student than Burgess' does). Then, too, both plays wear their polemics on their sleeves; there's wit aplenty, but subtlety is beside the point.

That, though, is where the similarities end, and where Burgess' play forges forward with greater curiosity, keener emotional insight, and more ruthlessness than Mamet's opus. In the case of "The Niceties" it's two female characters; and though the question of race takes its place front and center, it's often jostled by an equally compelling interrogation of the divide between contemporary young people and their older Baby Boomer/Gen-Xer counterparts.

Janine (Lisa Banes) is the accomplished, self-possessed, and somewhat self-absorbed professor; a woman of about sixty who has navigated the male world of academia and wrested for herself a significant measure of hard-won success. Pragmatic, hard-edged, and a little bit behind the times when it comes to knowing how to talk to people, Janine sees the great potential that her student Zoe (Jordan Boatman) possesses, but when Zoe comes to her with a thesis idea that suggests African Americans have, through their misery and station at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, cushioned the American experience (serving as a bulwark against violent political revolution, for instance), Janine infuriates, alienates, and, in a sense, validates Zoe.

Janine has a point, of course, in noting that history, though always subject to interpretation, needs to be grounded in facts, and those facts must rely on the artifacts and written records of the time. But her insistence that Zoe's idea be rigorously proven in the context of an evidence-based examination runs counter to the very essence of Zoe's contention that African Americans have been systematically silenced. After all, what evidence is there to be found, when slaves were denied education and the Jim Crow era persisted in denigrating and dismissing the African American perspective?

Zoe, in other words, is less interested in the provable than in the intuited. She knows how people of color must have felt in the time of the American Revolutionary War because she knows how she feels today; and though progress has taken place, and her own life is vastly superior to the lives of people in the past - almost all of the people of the past, whatever their skin colors might have been and regardless of whether they were rich or poor - still, those systematic biases and inequities persist.

It's here that the play reaches its most fertile ground, and also where it scrapes up against impermeable narrative shoals. Janine is right to declare that an interpretation, arrived at with no primary source material, of how people in the past were thinking and feeling is "historical fiction" rather than history. But Zoe's point is valid, too; is it right to ask a student of color to walk away from history empty-handed, or to settle for a predominantly white reading of the past, which is, after all, essentially a continuation of business as usual for the last half a millennium or more?

Such questions would make terrific scholarly reading, but would not necessarily provide gripping theater; thus it is that Janine blurts out a few foolish utterances, the most grievous of which is to upbraid Zoe for iterating "people in power" who could otherwise be of assistance to her. Saying such a thing is, in itself, an abuse of power insofar as it contains a not-so-veiled threat of consequences and relies specifically on the power differential being referenced as a way of demanding surrender. Would a person of such accomplishment - not to mention long experience with students - actually put such a thought into words?

Zoe's response to this affront is as indefensible as the offense itself. By the time Act Two starts up, the two have entered the white water rapids of a modern-day social media firestorm, with all the associated attention from the traditional media that it entails. Their disagreement suddenly becomes a flashpoint for larger and even more fractious conflicts. Janine's tenure is in danger; Zoe is getting death threats. Can the older, supposedly wiser party learn new and consciousness-raising tricks? Can the younger, more impetuous party learn to dial back her accusations and her grandiose, excessive, and sometimes punitive demands?

"The Niceties" is anything but; Burgess skewers modes of diplomacy that soothe and sympathize while accomplishing little substantive change. At the same time, she points out the self-defeating nature of radical change taken precipitously. If there's a middle path, it's bound to be painfully narrow and tortuously indirect... precisely the sort of approach that impatient, hurting youth would wish to cut through. This play is set in 2016, during the last presidential election, and one or two well-placed references to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton summon forth legions of associations, each of them with a play's worth of vitriol and diatribe (those things being today's version of a debate). But it's very much a work of the post-election world, developed in the summer after Trump's victory and the instant credibility that it gave white supremacists and zealots determined to enforce a scriptural basis for discrimination, since constitutional grounds for it were in scant supply.

As such, "The Niceties" is a sharp and harrowing diagnosis of multiple problems that raven and rift America's political left. (The gulf between right and left is assumed here to be understood and, perhaps, assumed to be so beyond repair that it's not worth going into.) The fault lines are racial, yes, and generational, but even here there's a creeping, distressing disconnect. Who shall we trust? Who do we follow? Those who insist upon identifying facts and proceeding methodically and in accordance with those facts? Or those who rely on feelings, preferred assumptions, and even wishful thinking, as if assuming that reality itself can be hammered into shape through ideology or hardened, enforced consensus? Burgess meditates on this, and asks us to think it over seriously, but she refuses to offer an answer. That's fine; what's harder to take, though, is that she either sees no reason for optimism, or, if she does, she withholds it. Juts be prepared when you walk in to laugh heartily, if ruefully... and then be left staring into the dark.

The Huntington Theatre Company's production of "The Niceties" continues through Oct. 6 at the Boston Center for the Arts. for tickets and more information, please go to https://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2018-2019/the-niceties/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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